Andersen: Healthy respect for the big slides
On the last day of skiing at Aspen Highlands, Graeme and I walked the ridge a quarter mile beyond Highlands Peak for a look at our amazing backyard, the familiar and spectacular mountain peaks that never lose their impact.
From our aerie, the Maroon Bells and Pyramid Peak stood before us — jagged horns of snow, ice and rock. A sweep to the south took in the Conundrum Creek Valley, headed by vast, snowy basins. We were reminded of ski tours to the hot springs on windswept winter days when the geothermal pools cloaked our nakedness in clouds of steam.
A sweep to the right offered up Siever’s Mountain, the Elk Mountain Ridge, Mount Sopris and the distant Flattops. A birdlike swivel of the neck — with the crackling of a few stiff vertebrae — encompassed the Holy Cross Range, the Sawatch Range, Aspen Mountain and Mount Hayden.
We glassed Hayden for tracks but saw none. However, across from us on Five Fingers were several carefully skied lines on what looked like a reasonable pitch along a gentle rib. The iffy part was the traverse to the rib, a contour across a big, open slope that would have shaken my nerves. The risk was pronounced given what lay directly at out feet.
A huge fracture had cracked recently across the top of Tonar Bowl, one of the popular off-piste runs from Highlands Ridge. One gully showed a 10-foot break where the avalanche had run to the ground. It must have gone off like a cannon shot followed by a thunderous roar.
The slide had scoured deep gouges in the lower basin, as if a sculptor had taken a sharp chisel to a piece of white marble and hammered away. The avalanche had swept to the right and pushed up tons of snow and debris into a ridgeline of impressive proportions — a potent scene of huge, destructive power.
I felt a touch of vertigo looking down at it because the vantage from the ridge played with perspective, so it was hard to determine angles and pitch. It was like an M.C. Escher graphic with odd shapes and angles contorted by the force of the slide and the way it had piled up snow and broken trees. This was the second big release to go in the past few weeks from Highlands Ridge, a harbinger of extreme danger.
As Graeme and I scanned the narrow, corniced ridge leading farther south, we spotted a lone hiker with skis on his pack. His goal was the rib mentioned before, and we offered a silent prayer for his safety given the vast wreckage evident in Tonar.
The closest I’ve come to an avalanche was on a spring ski tour over West Maroon Pass from Marble. We were tracking across Crater Lake when a roar filled the valley. I assumed it was a low-flying jet and turned in time to see the north face of North Maroon erupting in tumbling cascades. We stopped in wonder, staring up at the force before us, skiing on only when a tongue of the slide pushed slowly out onto the frozen lake like a huge, white slug.
Skating down the road past Maroon Lake, we saw another slide let loose on the lower slopes of Pyramid Peak. The roar and spectacle were engrossing, though two slides in one day made it clear that our timing over the pass had been a bit close.
Still, this was nothing compared with the risks I once took as a beginner backcountry skier on hickory boards and leather boots when I lived in Crested Butte. My favorite tour was up an old mining road on the backside of Mount Emmons, where I crossed several huge slide runs without even knowing it.
That was dumb luck, but I know better now and firmly believe that backcountry skiing can be safe. The big slides are reminders not to take chances — ever. Watching an avalanche is a remarkable experience but only when seen from a safe distance or, better yet, long after the snow has settled.
Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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